Best known for the film Gone With the Wind, producer David Selznick launched the careers of film legends Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, and Jennifer Jones. Many of his films from the 1930s and 1940s are considered to be classics.
David Selznick was born on May 10, 1902, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of three sons born to Lewis and Florence (Flossie) Selznick. The boys were raised in New York City. Selznick's father made his fortune in early moving pictures. In Showman—The Life of David O. Selznick David Thomson wrote, "In David's eyes, Pop was not just a great man, but a crucial innovator in the picture business. Pop's influence on him was vast and unquestioned." Selznick's brother, Myron, was equally close to their mother. The eldest brother, Howard, suffered from health and personal problems his entire life, but outlived both of his brothers.
As noted in the 1998 "American Masters Special" Hitchcock, Selznick, and the End of Hollywood, Selznick's world revolved around father and movies. After school, he headed to his father's offices in Times Square and edited the company newsreel. He and his brother Myron also attended financial meetings on Wall Street. Selznick did not attend school too often. From an early age, he thought it was more important to learn the movie business and analyze actors for his father. When Selznick was 17, and his brother was 21, their father gave them an unconventional weekly allowance: $750 for David and $1,000 for Myron. According to Bob Thomas, author of Selznick, their father told them: "Spend it all. Give it away. Throw it away. But get rid of it. Live expensively. If you have confidence in yourself, live beyond your means."
Father and sons worked and played hard, until the bottom fell out of their world. Movie studios became popular in the early 1920s, and Selznick Pictures was unable to compete. Selznick's father went bankrupt. All the family possessions had to be sold. Despite this setback, Selznick still wanted to achieve fame in the movie business. Thomas wrote that Selznick decided he "needed a middle initial to give his name a more imposing look and sound. The important figures of the film world bore middle initials: Cecil B. De Mille, Louis B. Mayer." He settled on the letter "O," and his official name became David Oliver Selznick. Hollywood was waiting, so Selznick and his brother, Myron, headed west.
Selznick was determined to raise the family name and redeem his father. He landed in Hollywood in 1926, and "talked, hustled, and cajoled his way into Metro/Goldwyn/ Mayer (MGM)." He was given a job as a reader in the story department. After one day, Selznick started bombarding executives with ideas.
Although he advanced quickly at MGM, Selznick moved to Paramount Studios, where he worked as an assistant to the studio head, B.P. Schulberg. According to the New York Times, Schulberg once told Selznick, "You're the most arrogant young man I've ever known." He also began courting Irene Mayer, younger daughter of Louis B. Mayer of MGM. Mayer disapproved of the romance, but as Thomas wrote, "The father's opposition seemed only to deepen the attachment between Irene and David." The "American Masters Special" called Irene Mayer "probably the most intelligent, young woman in Hollywood, maybe the coldest," adding that she was a "great talker, the first woman he [Selznick] really liked talking to."
The couple married in April 1930, and had two sons, Lewis Jeffrey, born in 1932, and Daniel Mayer, born in 1936. Thomson called the marriage the "most serious deal [Selznick] would ever make." People in the business questioned his motives. He had married the daughter of one of the most powerful men in town. Gossip ran rampant about their marraige.
Selznick moved from Paramount Studios to RKO Pictures ( King Kong was made during his tenure) back to MGM. Most MGM executives greeted him cooly. They felt he was using his father-in-law to get ahead. According to the New York Times, the joke in Hollywood was "the son-in-law also rises." As noted in the "American Masters Special," people made movies by committee in the 1930s. Selznick wanted one man to be in charge, himself. In 1935, he left MGM to start his own studio. Some of the investors included his brother, John Hay (Jock) Whitney, and actress Norma Shearer. The New York Times reported that "Selznick did not invest any money, but he owned a little more than half of the company." When Selznick International Pictures opened, he considered it the happiest day of his life.
In 1936, a Selznick employee named Kay Brown encouraged him to buy the screen rights to a civil war story entitled Gone With the Wind. The asking price was the unprecedented sum of $50,000. Selznick made the purchase and faced the daunting task of turning the lengthy story into a movie script. This new project became his life. As the "American Masters Special" asserted, "He obsessed over the script, the cast, the costumes, the make-up, the architecture—anything that would affect the look and feel of his film. Despite his talents, the stress of production made him a different human being. He had an inability to delegate."
Selznick's friend, George Cukor was hired to direct Gone With the Wind. Once filming began, Selznick was unhappy. About two and a half weeks into production, he fired Cukor and replaced him with Victor Fleming. Fleming was directing The Wizard of Oz at MGM. Louis B. Mayer pulled him from the movie and loaned him to his son-in-law, which caused problems on the sets of both movies. Fleming yelled and fought with everyone except Clark Gable, the male lead in the movie. Vivien Leigh, the female lead, and Fleming hated each other. Everyone hated Selznick. The cast and crew pulled 18-hour days. Three months later, Fleming collapsed. Not missing a beat, Selznick hired another director, Sam Wood. Often, the cast would have Fleming in the morning and Wood in the afternoon. The "American Masters Special," concluded that the director didn't really matter as "the same man was always in charge."
The New York Times, noted, "During the 22 weeks of shooting, Selznick's work habits became legend. He worked at times at three-day stretches without sleep, feeding himself Benzadrine and thyroid extract, and playing poker and roulette to relax." The article added that he was "one of Hollywood's most famous memo writers." During the filming of Gone With the Wind, he once sent Leigh a memo that weighed half a pound.
The defining moment for Selznick came on December 15, 1939, when Gone With the Wind had its premiere in Atlanta. As replayed by the "American Masters Special," Selznick told crowd, "Three years of effort have led to this moment. If Atlanta, which is the final judge, approves our efforts, these labors will not have been in vain." A few months later, Gone With the Wind won the 1939 Academy Award for best picture as well as the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Regarding Selznick's overwhelming success with Gone With the Wind, Crother of the New York Times wrote, "He had more to do with the making of it than anyone who worked on it."
Besides Gone With the Wind, Selznick made two other important career decisions in 1939. He brought actress Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood from Sweden, where she became a star. He also began a tumultuous professional relationship with the English director, Alfred Hitchcock. In the late 1930s, British movie studios in were in a deep decline. Hitchcock, who had had success in England, put the word out that he wanted to come to Hollywood. Selznick was the only man to respond and Hitchcock thought they would be a good fit. Their first planned movie, Titanic, was scrapped because of high cost estimates. Their first completed project was Rebecca.
In Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, Leonard J. Leff stated that Hitchcock had a "flair for striking detail and a penchant for the perverse," whereas Selznick had "a keen eye for successful entertainment on the grand scale." As relayed by the "American Masters Special," Hitchcock convinced Selznick to let him adapt Rebecca into a screenplay. His style was to find one key element of the story and throw the rest away. This had worked for him in England. Selznick responded with a 3,000-word memo, arguing that Hitchcock should remain faithful to the book. Despite the ensuing tension and disagreements, Rebecca won the 1940 Academy Award for best picture.
Selznick's consecutive best picture awards were impressive, but had a negative impact as well. As noted by the "American Masters Special," the success "encouraged him to think his crazy method of working was The method of working. It proved that his methods, being a megalomaniac, worked." The New York Times, reported that producer Nunnally Johnson wrote to Selznick, "I should certainly like to work for you, although my understanding of it is that an assignment from you consists of three months of work and six month of recuperation."
Selznick got upset because Rebecca was often compared to Gone With the Wind. Even though many biographers and critics believe he was obsessed with repeating the success of Gone With the Wind, Selznick once adamantly stated, "That makes me furious. It ( Gone With the Wind ) was such a stupendous undertaking. Anything else, no matter what we'll make, will always seem insignificant after that."
Selznick's world soon began to unravel. He spent money as quickly as he got it. Like his father, he liked to gamble. He did everything but make movies and suffered from depression. Hitchcock, who was under an exclusive contract to Selznick, branched out to other studios at this time. He learned writing, producing, and editing without interference from Selznick. His personal problems escalated. His marriage began to fail, his studio was in financial trouble, and his brother drank himself to death. Selznick fled Hollywood for New York City. He began consulting a therapist, May Romm, and declared himself cured within a few weeks.
Spellbound was the next Selznick/Hitchcock collaborative effort. The story dealt with the powers of psychoanalysis. It was Selznick's idea, but Hitchcock was determined to make the film his own. Selznick called for all-night story sessions. Since the movie had deep psychological elements, he named Romm as a technical adviser. Selznick insisted that Hitchcock respond to Romm regarding the script, and also cast his latest find, Gregory Peck, in the movie. Despite fierce battles on the set, the movie was a commercial hit.
Selznick's troubles continued. He and Hitchcock were battling over a new film, Notorious. He was also involved with a struggling actress named Jennifer Jones. Although burdened by success, Selznick planned to reclaim his past glory with Jones starring in his new film, Duel in the Sun. Selznick's films had a reputation for being exorbitant in costs. Duel in the Sun, a grandiose and violent Western, was no exception. For the purpose of authenticity, Selznick purchased 400 head of cattle and had cactus painted green.
Problems began on the set. Expenses were rising, and Selznick found fault after fault with filming. Five months into production, in June of 1945, the director walked off the set. Frustrated and needing cash, Selznick sold the rights to Notorious, to RKO. Hitchcock gained nothing but his freedom. It would be his first experience as a producer.
A few days later, tired of her husband's affairs and his obsession with Jones, Selznick's wife left him. The night she left, Selznick lost $32,000 playing cards. During the rest of 1945, he lost $300,000. The next year, he lost twice that. Finances were becoming a problem. After a year and a half of filming, Duel in the Sun was completed. It was not the success that Selznick and Jones had hoped. Although Jones earned an Academy Award nomination and the film did well financially, critics lambasted the movie. Jones was going through an emotional time, divorcing her first husband. Thomas wrote that "Her creative energies were depleted, and the turmoil in her personal life was becoming almost unbearable. David continued to dominate her life in an overwhelming manner."
Selznick's downward spiral continued. Hitchcock had to complete one more film to meet his obligation to Selznick. The film was The Paradine Case. It was a nightmare on the set, and Selznick was at his worst, deciding to become his own writer. Hitchcock assembled a rough cut of the film, completing his contract to Selznick, and walked off the set, ending a seven-year relationship. Selznick fell apart.
Others in Selznick's life were finding success. Irene Mayer Selznick produced A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway in 1947 (the couple would divorce a year later). Hitchcock came into his own in Hollywood. His best work was still to come, while Selznick would produce only a few more films. Actor Gregory Peck told Bowers, "He finally had to stop producing because he had a fixation he had to do everything as big as Gone With the Wind, or more heartbreaking, to top Gone With the Wind. "
Selznick still had Jones in his life. Thomas wrote, "In her, he had found the cause to which he would devote the remaining years of his life." On her part, Thomas wrote, Jones "felt a deep attachment and a sense of gratitude to David, but she feared marriage to him." After much discussion, confusion, and reluctance, the couple married on July 13, 1949 in Italy. They would have one daughter, Mary Jennifer, born in 1954. Jones' career would continue to be Selznick's "pet project." Bowers concluded, "Through his carefully planned tutelage and exploitation, her career equaled that of her more talented rivals."
Selznick was not a healthy person and suffered a series of heart attacks, beginning in late 1962. On June 22, 1965, Selznick was stricken with a final heart attack in the office of his lawyer in Hollywood, and rushed to the hospital. With Jones at his bedside, he died at the age of 63. Upon his death, the New York Times, wrote "He produced quality films with three trademarks: top stars, the finest writers, and no expense spared." Biographer Thomson concluded, "Selznick was the most charming, best-read, most insanely workaholic (and most easily diverted), most talented, arrogant, hopeful, amorous, insecure, and self-destructive of all the geniuses of American movie-making."
Bowers, Ronald, The Selznick Players, A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1976.
Leff, Leonard J., Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, University of California Press, 1999.
Thomas, Bob, Selznick, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970.
Thomson, David, Showman—The Life of David O. Selznick, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992.
Esquire, September 1997, p. 52.
New York Times, June 23, 1965.
Variety, May 24, 1999, p. 5.
"David O. Selznick," The Internet Movie Database Ltd, http://chevy.imbd.com (October 16, 1999).
Hitchcock, Selznick, and the End of Hollywood, An American Masters Special, Public Broadcasting Company, 1998; produced, written, and directed by Michael Epstein, narrated by Gene Hackman, a production of Thirteen/WNET (November 1, 1999).